By Marcus Overton, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Originally published January 26. 2016; full text and original article visible here.
“Something wonderful happened at the junction of art and philanthropy on Sunday afternoon: a performance (to a packed Conrad Prebys Concert Hall buzzing with anticipation before and astonished satisfaction afterward) of a rarely-heard masterwork: French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux Étoiles.”
Let’s English that title — “From the Canyons to the Stars” — since its music came to Messiaen literally out of the canyons beneath and the stars above our own country, as a result of an early-’70s commission by American philanthropist Alice Tully to compose a piece for the United States Bicentennial.
In the outdoor cathedrals of Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, the devoutly religious Messiaen and his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, looked into distance, gazed into depths and listened to the earth, the air and Messiaen’s beloved birds. Premiered in New York’s Alice Tully Hall in 1974, “Canyons” is not so much music about feelings but the feelings themselves, conveyed directly into the listener in gleaming, ringing sound that acts on the whole body viscerally, raising pulses, stopping breaths, shivering spines and goose-bumping skin.
This concert was itself also the result of a philanthropic gesture. In 2015, Joel and Ann Reed chose the UC San Diego music department as the recipient of funds to provide for performances that might otherwise be too costly to mount alone. UCSD professor Steven Schick is the inaugural occupant of the Reed Family Presidential Chair.
Currently an iconic figure in the landscape of American music, Schick collaborated with Art of Élan co-artistic director Kate Hatmaker to present “Canyons” as the first Reed Family Concert. Together they assembled an extraordinary ensemble of San Diego-based players they call RENGA (a Japanese word meaning “shared writing”).
Schick’s conducting was precise without being rigid; it was also, contradictorily, liberating. It is hard to imagine how this piece can be assembled without dominating players’ lives for months, but it was immediately clear that every player had been “wood-shedding” for a long time: The one thing Schick did not have to worry about in a work that contains every possible rhythmic, harmonic and coordination challenge was whether or not his players were technically prepared.
To compass the achievement of the soloists arrayed across the front of the platform in the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, words are not quite adequate. Nicolee Kuester raised her French horn to sound the “Interstellar Call” that begins the fourth of the music’s 12 parts, and placed all of us, for a few minutes, in vast space. Pianist Aleck Karis released flights of birds — mockingbirds, orioles, wood thrushes, robins — with laser-like concentration and limpid clarity. Percussionists Sean Dowgray (glockenspiel) and Ryan Nestor (xylomarimba), at the conductor’s left on the edge of the stage, coordinated with their colleagues, UC San Diego’s renowned percussion ensemble, red fish blue fish — arrayed across the back of the orchestra — to raise a shimmering curtain of bells, gongs, rain forest murmurs and desert wind .
Enough of words, which are almost useless because Messiaen’s very aim is to make them meaningless in the face of nature.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of Pierre Boulez, and — by the musicians — in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the National Parks System.
For this listener and, I’ll wager, for everyone who was there, it was and will be unforgettable.”